Ned Barnett

Wake Democrats split by a school funding system that invites conflict

Former Wake County school board member Susan Evans is challenging Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman  in the May 8 Democratic primary election. Four other Democratic commissioners also face challengers in the primary.
Former Wake County school board member Susan Evans is challenging Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman in the May 8 Democratic primary election. Four other Democratic commissioners also face challengers in the primary. The News & Observer

In North Carolina, serving on the county school board requires leading by begging.

School boards set the education agenda and craft a budget to pay for it, but they can’t tax. To get the money, school board members must go to their county commissioners and plead.

Now a few Democrats have wearied of this annual hat-in-hand ritual and are proposing a radical new approach: Let’s have the school board take over the Board of County Commissioners and replace the budget tension with harmony and generous school funding.

It’s not a literal takeover, of course. The idea is to replace Democratic commissioners who balked at giving schools all the school board asked for with Democrats committed to meeting the school board’s full funding requests. That’s why a majority of commissioners on the seven-member board face challengers in the May 8 primary election.

This mutiny is being engineered by two prominent and wealthy Democrats — Ann Campbell, an education advocate, and Dean Debnam, owner of Public Policy Polling. Through individual and PAC donations, they’re supporting challengers to commissioners John Burns, Matt Calabria, Sig Hutchinson and Erv Portman. Commissioner James West is also facing a primary challenger — Robert Finch Sr. — but Finch isn’t part of the group backed by Campbell and Debnam.

Former school board member Susan Evans is challenging Portman while Vickie Adamson and Jeremiah Pierce are challenging Burns and Hutchinson, respectively. Former commissioner Lindy Brown is challenging Calabria.

This is truly an odd and, for Democrats, dangerous political turn. Only four years ago, Democrats routed the Republican-dominated board and replaced its tight-fisted members with an all-Democratic group committed to improving school funding. The new commissioners — with Portman joining in 2016 — have raised school funding by 32 percent since 2014, raising overall funding from $327 million to $430 million in 2018. The commissioners have raised taxes three years in a row to pay for the increases.

But the commissioners haven’t given the school board all of its requests. In 2017, the schools sought a $45 million increase and got less than half — $21 million.. Still, in overall budget terms, the school board received 97 percent of what it requested last year.

So why this fight between people who agree on the need for more school funding? Some of it is urgency vs. moderation. Democratic school advocates want to boost Wake’s school spending aggressively to offset reduced funding from the General Assembly and the rising cost of a growing school system that is already the state’s largest with 160,00 students.

The challengers say Wake, where the property tax rate is still low compared to other urban counties, will have to step up its public school funding or lose its status as one of the state’s best school systems. Evans said, “We have to ask ourselves: Are we OK with a declining or mediocre school system?”

Commissioners want to help, but worry that raising taxes too fast will lead to a taxpayer backlash and a return to a Republican-dominated board that will again squeeze schools. Portman asked, “How many years do you think voters will tolerate us just raising taxes and not declaring victory?”

Those two questions frame the May 8 primaries and are distilled in the candidacies of Portman and Evans. Portman, 62, of Cary, is founder WestStar Precision, a manufacturer of aerospace and medical products. He takes a practical approach to school funding. He’s committed to public schools — three of his four daughters are school teachers — but he wants to end the annual debate over funding. He favors a new approach in which paying for growth in the student population and inflation is agreed at the outset and the debate focuses on how to fund improvements in the schools.

“I don’t think the county commissioners should be a rubber stamp for the school board. We have a lot of other needs,” he said. “We should continue to fund the schools, but we should do it in a strategic way.”

Evans, 60, of Apex, is a CPA well versed in school funding from her years on the school board form 2011 to 2016. She said it’s not a matter of giving the school board all it wants. It’s a matter of respecting that the request is well-grounded and not some inflated number that needs pruning by commissioners.

“I have not campaigned on fully funding the school system’s request. I understand there are competing needs,” she said. “What I have campaigned on is being part of a really well-informed discussion.”

When one side must plead for money and the other must tax for it, conflict is inevitable. The pleaders are apt to feel disrespected and the taxers often feel the political pressures they face are not acknowledged. That conflict has come to an especially bad pass in this commissioners primary. Portman is a fine commissioner who wants to fix the process that Evans feels disrespects the school board’s judgment. Evans has the knowledge and background to improve that process on the commissioners’ side.

Evans would be an asset to the Wake commissioners, but Portman already is. Given that standoff, the nod must go to the incumbent. There’s no good answer here except to hope that both Evans and Portman — and both sides in all five primaries — come to see how the others view a process in which the flaws are not their fault.

Barnett: 919-829-4512